Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

This little gem has been on my radar ever since I stumbled onto it while perusing through the filmography section of Robert Englund’s Wikipedia page. It’s got a relatively fresh and different take on horror films with its mockumentary narrative mixed with segments that were shot to look like a traditional horror movie. It’s kinda doing what Scream did in the 90s but instead of being a bit tongue in cheek with its self-conscious meta aspect, The Rise of Leslie Vernon instead has chosen to go for a more grounded and realistic approach. There’s some real fun to be found in the meta heavy “behind the scenes” portions of the movie where Leslie explains to the camera all the small details and planning that goes into preparing the ground zero where his killings spree is to take place. For example you need to saw off branches from nearby trees so that your victims can’t use them to escape, you have nail down windows from the ground floor to have direct control of the number of exits out of the house (people apparently only become desperate enough to break the windows in upper floors, never in the ground floor), provide easily found flashlights with dead batteries inside to make it scarier when he cuts off the lights, etc. The entire tone of the movie is laced with this clever, dry humor that has fun with the entire premise of following a potential serial killer around like a nature documentary. Leslie for example at one points makes a point about how he needs to do a lot of cardio just to make sure he can keep up with the fleeing victims, whenever he’s not in sight and pretending to follow them by walking with that classic menacingly slow walk that’s a horror film trope.

What made the movie so damn fun to watch to me personally was the absurd, nonchalant and a bit mundane approach to documenting Leslie’s preparations to becoming a serial killer. For the most part his chosen career is portrayed as a bit of an unconventional curiosity, but otherwise a valid vocation, which starts to make sense when you remind yourself that the movie is set on a world where other slasher villains like Freddy Kruger, Michael Meyers and Jason are real. There’s a great bit about that when Leslie takes the crew to meet the man who is in many ways his mentor: an elderly man who’s now retired from the slasher business. They have this very wonderful, matter of fact discussion about the art of being a serial killer in the slasher film sense and what service they provide to the communities, and how the new guys who have added supernatural elements and repeated appearances as their gimmick have basically elevated the entire business to a whole new level, almost an art form. They might as well have been talking about the weather or the latest football game, it feels so casual and it’s that jarring conflict of tone and context that perfectly represents the very appeal of the whole movie.

It’s remarkable how they’re able to make the entire premise feel bizarre and beautifully morbid without ever feeling threatening or corny. It’s a very delicate balance to keep Leslie likable while also making him feel genuinely like a guy who could go on a murder spree, but they pull it off. You even start to see the crew slowly get enthralled by Lesley, as they temporarily loses all objectivity and get personally involved in Leslie’s prep work: after the crew has succeed in helping Leslie in scaring the girl whom Leslie has chosen as his lead protagonist or “survivor girl” for his future bloodbath, rather than feel any type of moral or ethical quandaries about what they’re doing to the poor girl, they are instead shown to be overwhelmed with excitement and joy, getting entirely lost in the moment. It’s an ingenious way to depict how you, the viewer, have also started to cheer for Leslie, even though you from the very beginning know he’s soon going to kill innocent people.

Unfortunately, as we get to the third act, things start to fall apart. It starts after the documentary crew are following Leslie as he’s about to begin his night of horror, and of course despite being very invested into documenting Leslie’s attack, the crew inevitably lose their nerve. First they try to just leave, but eventually they find their conscience burdening them enough to break their promise to Leslie of not interfering and instead attempt to rescue the kids, with poor results. It’s just as predictable and dull as it sounds. And this is where the movie starts to become very boring. Up until now the movie has been successfully playing with the tropes and conventions of the horror genre in an amusing way, but now as it attempts to transits itself to being just a normal horror movie, with the documentary crew trying to be genre savvy about how Leslie will proceed with his killing,it just isn’t very engaging or fun anymore. There are still some somewhat clever twists and subversions left in the story, but it pretty much has lost its core appeal once the mockumentary aspect gets dropped. The straight horror simply doesn’t have much going for it when you’re so unfamiliar with the potential victims that you don’t care one way or another if they die. Even the documentary crew members facing the possibility of dying feels hollow since they barely have any real characteristics beyond very generic “he’s fat” or “she’s an ambitious” descriptions.

As whole, it’s an okay movie, with a bland climax and ending. The unconventional approach to horror and the first half of the movie alone make it worth watching even if you walk away from it with slight disappointment.

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